Black Sea is a drama about a desperate and disparate group of men who take a rusty old submarine deep into Russian waters to retrieve a fortune in lost Nazi gold. It is atmospheric, it is tense, it is claustrophobic and it is captivating.
It shows how people can be pushed to extreme measures by love, greed, anger, frustration and a sense of powerlessness. It examines the human psyche, it explores loyalty and comradery. It evokes a range of movies from those with a similar setting such as Das Boot, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October, as well as other men on a mission and heist films.
It is well shot and effectively performed. It is unpredictable, in some ways undefinable and it is unrepentantly and realistically British. This is not the romanticised UK of Love Actually and Paddington, it is a fractured Britain still trying to recover from the wounds of Thatcher’s Government, wounds that are constantly picked at by the capitalist legacy of the 80s and will not be allowed to heal. It is a film with big themes and admirable ambition.
Unfortunately it is also completely preposterous.
I was highly critical of the new Godzilla film earlier in the year and while Black Sea has not got me as cross it is equally full of nonsensical character motivations and implausibility. I had high hopes for that big monster movie after director Gareth Edwards previous work but I didn’t go into Black Sea with the same expectations because, as William Shakespeare never actually said, “expectation is the root of all heartache”. (He actually wrote “Oft expectation fails and most oft there where most it promises, and oft it hits where hope is coldest and despair most fits” but clearly that doesn’t look as good on a fridge magnet.)
It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think this was going to be more than your average thriller as director Kevin MacDonald gave us the excellent The Last King of Scotland but his output since, with State of Play and How I Live Now has been less distinctive. To be fair MacDonald (Emeric Pressburger’s grandson no less) does a good job, the direction is assured and the film looks great. The blame has to go to screenwriter Dennis Kelly.
Laying the blame at this man’s door pains me slightly as it was Kelly who wrote the story and script for the RSC’s sublime musical Matilda. Whereas there he beautifully embellished Roald Dahl’s original book, here it looks like he has taken one of the author’s discarded scripts for Tales of the Unexpected and taken out all of the story clues that lead to the twists. Some of the plot developments are painfully signposted (‘Don’t let that guy on the boat, he’s a total psychopath. Yes, but he is a great diver.) and when they are not announced, they are stupendously illogical. To provide more detail would be to rob the film of what little suspense is does generate but most of what happens seems at best poorly planned out and at worst totally unfeasible.
I was entertained but despite much that should keep this sub movie afloat, ultimately it sinks. The tag line for the film is: The only thing more dangerous than the mission is the crew. Substitute the word dangerous for the word idiotic and you’ve got the movie in a nutshell.
Is this one for the kids?
Black Sea is a 15 for scenes of violence and distress but it’s not one the tweenies are going to be nagging you to take them to anyway.
The Ripley Factor:
This is a men’s film about men on a mission. No girls allowed.
There is just one named female character and she only exists in flashback. The fact that she registers at all is largely down to actress Jodie Whittaker who somehow manages to leave an impression with her largely wordless part.